In the midst of the final game of yet another trying, difficult season, Joe Thomas gave himself a couple of seconds to stretch his back in between plays. It was late December 2013 and, as the Browns’ veteran left tackle described it, a “meaningless” game against the team’s top rival, Pittsburgh, which was similarly out of the playoff picture, to cap his seventh season with the Browns. An hour or so separated Thomas from a month of R&R — “Other people call it the playoffs, but I call it the all-star break,” he jokingly says — before his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl appearance.
Thomas, who was dealing with back spasms at the time, lifted his leg across the other, placing his ankle atop the opposite knee. He bent down with force, too much of it, and heard the kind of “pop” an athlete never wants to hear come from his knee.
“I knew something bad had happened,” Thomas says. “I could kind of walk and it felt OK to stand on it and then I said, ‘All right, I guess I’ll play this play and play it like I normally do.’ At that point you’re probably not going to make it worse. It is what it is.”
Thomas played the rest of the game, a 20-7 loss that capped Rob Chudzinski’s first and only season as Browns head coach. An MRI shortly thereafter revealed that Thomas had a Grade 2 tear in his LCL, an injury that would have kept him sidelined for four to six weeks if the season had continued.
More than three years later, it’s a story that Thomas relays with plenty of laughter after lunch inside the Browns facility in suburban Cleveland. Ten years and 10 Pro Bowls after his pro career began, Thomas is still a cornerstone piece of the team that drafted him. He’s come close — torn LCL close — but he still hasn’t missed a single snap since his NFL debut.
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He’ll enter his 11th season riding an NFL-best streak of 9,934 consecutive snaps with a chance to hit 10,000 in Cleveland’s season opener.
“You don’t let your mind tell you that you can’t do that because your mind tells you a lot of times in any game, ‘I can’t do it anymore,’” Thomas says. “You’ve got to push through it and kind of block out that part of your mind that says you can’t do it anymore.
“You get a lot of times when your limbs kind of go numb and they start tingling or you get a little stinger or your knee feels twisted up and messed up. You always think, ‘I’ve got 30 seconds to make this thing feel better,’ and by the time the next play starts you usually forget about it. That’s kind of carried over for the rest of my career.”
Thomas has literally given everything he can to the Browns and believes he has even more to give entering the second decade of his professional career. At 32, he’s the oldest player on one of the NFL’s youngest rosters, but he continues to play at a level that is envied and respected around the league. Though Thomas has been the subject of external trade rumors over the past two years, Browns coach Hue Jackson — the sixth head coach of Thomas’ career — has made it clear how valued Thomas is inside the locker room, on the field and everywhere in between.
“That’s not happening, or I’m going with him, OK?” Jackson said during the latter stages of Cleveland’s 2016 season, a 1–15 campaign. “I guarantee you that. I’m going with him. No, Joe Thomas means too much to this organization and to this football team. As I said to everybody, I want us to do right by him. Right by that is let’s go get this man some wins. He deserves that.”
The closest Thomas came to the playoffs was his rookie season in 2007. The Browns posted their best record since 1994, going 10–6 on the shoulders of an unexpectedly prolific passing offense, but they came up one win short of a trip to the postseason. Since then, the Browns have averaged 4.2 wins per season.
Change has surrounded Thomas since he moved to Cleveland, but he’s prided himself on being an outlier of stability. Even if the opportunity were to present itself, Thomas, a father of three and full-time Cleveland resident, couldn’t envision playing anywhere else.
“I place a high value on building a champion and being a part of the process of winning a championship,” Thomas says. “To me, it’s all about the process, and the championship is just sort of the end of that process. I think if you just skip forward to the end, it doesn’t mean as much. ‘Hey, I got a Super Bowl ring, but I was there for a month or a year. I wasn’t part of the building. I was just sort of a bit player at the end of it.’ To me, it just wouldn’t mean almost anything.
“I’ve always taken pride in being there when the hard work was being done. For me, that means turning this franchise that hasn’t even made a playoff in 10-plus years into a champion. That would mean everything and would be so special.”
Thomas has been part of several reboots in Cleveland, but he feels like the current regime — spearheaded by Jackson, executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta — has the team on a path toward delivering the results Jackson wants for his future Hall of Fame left tackle. Thomas has been outspoken about mistakes of the past but says the current roster has “the right pieces in place,” whether it be promising young players like nose tackle Danny Shelton, wide receiver Corey Coleman and defensive end Myles Garrett or draft assets shrewdly acquired in a slew of trades over the past year, to ensure he’ll never again experience another season like 2016.
“Now it’s just about having that patience to let the hard work and the planning and the preparation materialize for this team,” Thomas says. “I think that’s why I’m very optimistic about the future of the Browns.”
And that’s not to say he isn’t enjoying the present. Even during the hard times of 2016, Thomas found joy from the endless line of young players who surrounded him inside the locker room. When the team entered its home finale staring down history with an 0–14 record, Thomas remained a calming, guiding presence. When the Browns held on for a memorable Christmas Eve victory over the Chargers, Thomas let his guard down like never before. Tears streamed down his face as the celebration swirled around him.
“I kept telling myself, ‘I shouldn’t be this happy. This is not that big of a deal,’” Thomas says. “We just won a game and it doesn’t even matter.”
But that’s the thing. From the very first snap of his NFL career to No. 9,934 this past January in Pittsburgh to however many more lie ahead, Thomas doesn’t take a single one for granted.
All those snaps have come at a cost. Thomas told ESPN in late April that he was already experiencing memory loss, although he accepts the physical pounding as a tolerable price to pay for playing a tough game for a high salary. “To be able to live the lifestyle and provide for my family the way that football has been able to do, to me it’s a trade-off that I’m willing to accept,” Thomas says.
His teammates appreciate his commitment. “He exemplifies, for me, just consistency and toughness and all the things you are looking for in a player and a teammate,” former Browns quarterback Josh McCown says. “Just the fact that he has not missed a snap speaks volumes about who he is, because this game is tough. For him to do that more than anything, that is the thing I am most impressed with. It is part of his makeup off the field.”
Four days into training camp last year, Thomas stayed on the field for nearly an hour after practice working alongside rookie Shon Coleman. The third-round pick from Auburn had just experienced one of his first NFL practices, and his head was spinning. Thomas hasn’t felt that way in a while, but he remembers it all too well.
The scene has been a familiar one between Thomas and the team’s younger players, no matter the position. Because of the ever-changing nature of the Browns’ roster, Thomas became a veteran in a hurry, lending blocking tips to some, Cleveland house-hunting advice to others. Anything he could do to help, even though what he was doing from his position on the field on every snap of every season was more than sufficient.
“That’s kind of been something I was born with. I like to help people, whether that’s as a left tackle or a guard or off the field, it gives me satisfaction,” Thomas says. “It’s just kind of carried over, and as I’ve gotten older and understood the position more and more, it becomes even more enjoyable to me. I feel that’s one of the things I can bring to this team.”
Thomas isn’t practicing as much as he used to — he receives days of rest in training camp and on Wednesdays throughout the season — but he’s working harder than ever. He was a constant presence in the Browns’ facility throughout the offseason and has embraced a number of new workout regimens, most notably yoga, to make sure the snaps he piles onto his seemingly unbelievable streak are just as impactful as the previous 9,934.
“If I can, it’d probably be a good idea to keep this thing going,” Thomas says, “and not go out of the game for any hangnails.”